Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Nothing is Real

Last post I laid out a few story arc that weave through the mostly episodic mass of Star Trek: The Next Generation, lending some continuity to the overall series. Whether we're talking about the Borg, Q, Klingons, or Data's quest to be more human, these stories provide a sense that the series is moving forward, that one episode's story can communicate with another.

This same purpose is also met by a few of the series' big themes: man's relationship to technology, utopian noninterventionism, and exploration. When you put together the stories that introduce "strange new life" and "new civilizations," you discover a largely consistent world view from the show: discovery for discovery's sake is good; irrationally closing one's minds to possibilities is bad. One other theme that really emerged during my rematch of the series: the consistent questioning about the nature of reality.

At times this question was overt. One of my favorite episodes, for example, "Ship in a Bottle," ends with one of the characters attempting to turn off reality, just to make sure he was still in the real world. But many, many episodes approach this question from less obvious angles.

I've put together a list of episodes (at the end of the essay) that I think serve this over-arching theme of reality versus illusion. These are not just all the episodes where the holodeck makes an appearance, or even ones where a character is deceived or delusional. These are all episodes where a character has a specific reason to doubt the existence of reality around them and voices that suspicion. Sometimes this happens through the holodeck, other times Q's trickery or telepathic manipulation or simple brain-washing. But what is clear to me is that this is a consistent, perhaps even dominant theme throughout the run of the show.

To what purpose?

Star Trek is already a science fiction show set in a future filled with androids, aliens, and omnipotent incorporeal beings. By questioning the basic reality of the events on the show, doesn't Star Trek run the risk of undermining it's audience's own suspension of disbelief? Rather than shying away from such questions, Star Trek seems to almost revel in pointing out the artifice in its many created, virtual, and alien worlds.

Perhaps it's not the illusion that is the important part of this theme, but just what is reality on Star Trek. In a universe where people can create their own virtual worlds on the holodeck, their next dinner is beamed in a matter replicator, and personnel usually think nothing of having themselves disintegrated and beamed down to another world, perhaps it becomes more essential to be able to put one's finger on precisely what is real. For the imagine future of Star Trek has already begun to creep up on us. Google is sending out invitations for the Google Glass this week. The idea of overlaying imagery and information over the vision of a human being enters into a world where reality can no longer be taken for granted as a natural, unaltered experience. We are more and more conscious of the fact that the environment around us is becoming altered by the products of human endeavor. The Arctic Sea is opening up for navigation within this decade. The climate patterns of the world have already begun to shift. 

And of course that's leaving out consideration of all of the various uncertainty principles, observer biases, and distortions we're saddled with because of our imperfect senses. Again, maybe Star Trek's repeated questioning of reality isn't so much undermining as the only sane response to a world so profoundly compromised. If you can't be sure if one moment is more 'authentic' than the next, perhaps asking the computer to end the simulation is just sensible.

  • Encounter at Farpoint (Q trickery, matter manipulations from cyclopean alien jellyfish)
  • Where No One Has Gone Before (Apparently traveling to the edge of the universe results in reality bleed)
  • The Battle (Ferengi mind torture causes Picard to hallucinate)
  • Hide and Q (Riker receives power of the Q, gives everyone exactly what they desire)
  • Haven (Telepathic dreams confuse young artist)
  • The Long Goodbye (Holographic detective attempts to unravel mystery of own existence)
  • 11001001 (Picard and Riker entranced by a holographic siren, wonder at nature of attraction)
  • Coming of Age (Starfleet entrance exam punks Wesley)
  • We'll Always Have Paris (Temporal distortion leads Data to question which of his doppelgängers is the 'real' one)
  • Where Silence Has Lease (Vast alien intellect employs mind-games on Enterprise crew)
  • Elementary, Dear Data (Data's holographic nemesis Doctor Moriarty questions existence)
  • The Royale (Weird aliens create weird bubble universe based on bad novel)
  • Q Who (Picard asks Q if the Borg are one of his tricks. They're not)
  • The Survivors (An incredibly powerful alien tries to chase away the Enterprise with impressive illusions)
  • Booby Trap (LaForge has a more meaningful relationship with a hologram than actual people)
  • A Matter of Perspective (Star Trek Rashamon, 'nuff said)
  • Yesterday's Enterprise (Guinan can't explain how she knows alternate time stream is 'wrong,' but she's damn sure it is)
  • Hollow Pursuits (First Barkley episode, can't separate holodeck fantasies from obligations of reality)
  • Remember Me (Crusher experiences a rapidly shrinking universe, Picard tells her everything is fine)
  • Future Imperfect (Future is a lie. Romulan mind control is a lie. Riker believes both at first)
  • Clues (Crew wakes up missing a few hours, eventually figures out what happened, decides that they didn't need to know the truth so badly, forgets the whole thing)
  • The Mind's Eye (LaForge fed confusing version of reality through his visor)
  • The Bonding (Boy loses parent to freak accident, powerful alien attempts to recreate mother for him, has to choose reality)
  • Violations (Troi unable to decide where her real memories end and psychic manipulations begin)
  • Imaginary Friend (not a great episode but the title pretty much says it all)
  • The Next Phase (Ro is convinced she's dead and a ghost, LaForge isn't so sure)
  • The Inner Light (Picard lives an entire life within the data stream of an alien probe, once freed has trouble deciding which life is more real)
  • Realm of Fear (Barkley again, convinced that his paranoia over transporters has a basis in reality, he's right)
  • Schisms (Spooky dreams and hallucinations intrude into the waking life of characters)
  • Chain of Command, Part II (There. Are. FOUR! LIGHTS!)
  • Ship in a Bottle (Moriarty blissfully escapes his virtual prison to begin a mission of exploration within a virtual universe. Wow. Just Wow.)
  • Tapestry (Where am I? You're dead, Jean Luc. Picard questions the whole experience with Riker afterwards)
  • Frame of Mind (Riker undergoes extreme mental torture, can no longer separate his actual life from the fantasies of a delusional alien)
  • Rightful Heir (Worf cannot quite explain why the ancient Klingon prophet Kahless has returned, or ignore that he is standing in front of him)
  • Liaisons (Forgettable episode, but the alien assigned to Picard attempts to convince him that he is trapped on a desolate world)
  • Interface (LaForge convinced his mother is attempting to communicate with him through a virtual reality harness)
  • Phantasms (Data has waking dreams and disturbing nightmares. Stabs Troi when he sees a mouth on her shoulder)
  • Dark Page (Troi has to descend to the mindscape of her mother, attempting to figure out why Luxana has slipped into a coma)
  • Parallels (Multiple timelines, everyone keeps telling Worf to lie down)
  • Homeward (Holodeck used to trick aliens they're on a journey to a promised land. Malfunctions explained as signs from God)
  • Eye of the Beholder (Troi seized by the psychic resonance of an old murder/suicide and hallucinates freely)
  • All Good Things… (No one believes Picard about the temporal rift, Picard starts to doubt himself)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Star Trek's Meta Moment

For me, "Cause and Effect," an episode late in the fifth season, offers a rare glimpse into the series' emerging self-awareness. Although the show flirted with continuity (even as far back as the "Conspiracy" arc previewed in "Coming of Age"), it's interesting to think of this time-warping episode as a moment of clarity about the nature of procedural episodic drama.

Procedural dramas, contrasted with serial television, are shows composed of stand-alone episodes, where each story can be understood basically on its own terms. The characters might reappear, their traits consistent from one story to the next, but the events of one story only rarely impinge upon the events of the next. Episodic series are often formulaic, relying on resolutions that neatly tie up all of the loose ends into a neat and tidy denouement  This is obviously a very common device in television shows, particularly sitcoms. It is harder to attract new viewers to a show with pervasive continuity, the effort of catching up with continuing story-lines too daunting. So even in these relatively more sophisticated times, episodic television survives on, popular in all sorts of police procedurals and comedies. Really, not everything needs to have an over-arching story to go along with it.

However, science fiction generally, and space opera specifically, really benefits from a greater degree of continuity, or at least an awareness of what has come before. If you are going to invest time in learning a new lingo and the relationships of various fictional alien races, it's nice to know that the whole artifice isn't going to be upended with the next story line. 

Here is where The Next Generation does show its age. After enjoying the tangled and intricate plots of Battlestar Galactica or Deep Space Nine, it's hard to approach episodes with liberal applications of the reset button seriously. How much can we invest in the monster of the week if we're pretty sure this foe will never threaten our heroes again? How much can we care about a romance if we know this guest star will be shipping out at the end of the episode? I thought it was interesting "Emmassary" (DS9's pilot) spent so much time with Sisqo explaining the nature of linear time to the aliens of the wormhole, as if patiently instructing the viewers on the virtues of a strange alternate reality where the actions of one moment would have a bearing on the future. Exotic!

I'd like to suggest that one of the reasons "Cause and Effect" is an effective and memorable episode is that it takes place within the context of a show where cause and effect is so conspicuously absent. Basically this entire episode is a parody of the hard reset of every Star Trek procedural, where once the credits roll, the characters resume their lives without any memory of what just transpired. Only instead of taking 45 minutes to tell that story, this episode takes just 12. 

One has to watch a number of Star Trek episodes back-to-back to appreciate just how jarring this is. The Next Generation adopted fairly early on a formal and stately pacing. The problem is introduced in the first five minutes, the crew discussed the problem in a meeting and makes a few desultory attempts to resolve it. They fail, the problem escalates, threatens the crew, the ship, or the universe, until finally one of the characters begins spouting gibberish until the problem disappears, usually after some special effects. 

But here, the cold start hasn't introduced a conflict. It's resolved it. The Enterprise has already been hit, damaged severely, and in the midst of a warp core breach. Then it explodes.

Cue theme music. 

When we get back from the main credits, we're watching four of the main characters, Crusher, Data, Worf and Riker playing poker. Having the characters playing poker highlights the self-referential them of this episode. We've already seen this ongoing poker game again and again throughout the run of the series, and would even serve as the last shot in "All Good Things…" But a motif is not continuity. In Next Gen stories, the specific players of the game might change but there wasn't much sense of who was winning overall. Riker was always a formidable bluffer, Worf an intense strategist, and Data, the dealer. And that's basically how the game goes here, except Dr. Crusher seems oddly distracted during the game, suddenly seized by a sense of deja vu. Then she treats Geordi LaForge after he experiences a moment of vertigo. Later on that same day, Crusher awakens suddenly when her cabin is invaded by a chorus of whispers within her cabin. She attempts to shake off the experience during a staff meeting but is unsuccessful. Later, the ship encounters a spatial anomaly, loses power as another ship emerges from a rift. The mysterious ship clips one of the Enterprise's pylons, ultimately causing the ship to explode in exactly the same way seen in the teaser. "All hands, abandon Ship!"

Except they can't. After the commercial, the show proceeds through these same events again, with Crusher becoming increasingly disturbed by the premonitions that this has all happened before, premonitions that do little to prevent the Enterprise from again exploding. And then exploding again. But in each of the iterations, a little bit of knowledge escapes the disaster, first as vague deja vu, then as a recorded whispers from the doomed crew, and finally as a simple message relayed to Data's positronic net. Eventually Data is able to use this information relayed from previous loops to prevent disaster. 

It's this process of little details accruing after each retelling of the story that really sells this episode. While the story is one more example of fifth season "ship-in-peril" stories, it's different because the crew is able to communicate past the reset button. Who knows if this was an intentional metatextual element of the story, but within the context of the show as a whole, it certainly works at that level. Having sitcom actor Kelsey Grammar as a guest star appearing in the last few minutes, only adds an extra wink to the punchline.

This one episode is the series in miniature, or at least that portion of the series that proceeds episodically from one problem to the other with no awareness that any of the various technobabble catastrophes or technobabble solutions have the slightest precedent.

So, perhaps it's a happy coincidence that the fifth season also gave us "The Inner Light," which has all of the markings of a self-contained, what's the point? episode except for the fact that the effect of this story persists for sometime afterwards. As mentioned in a previous post, this episode finds Captain Picard trapped within a virtual world where he lives out his entire life as an alien in a doomed alien culture. At the end, he awakes from his dream as a man living on Kataan and resumes his role as captain of the Enterprise. Except, at that last scene, he picks up a flute, an instrument he had spent his entire virtual life learning to play, and he plays a simple alien tune. What he experienced in that alien life has remained with him. This idea of the Ressikan flute would appear in a few later episodes, most delightfully in "Lessons," where Picard revisits his feelings about his alternate life and plays a duet with it.

Of course there are other places where continuity exists in Next Gen as well, most prominently with Q and the Borg, but also in the Klingon politics arc and Data's slowly evolving quest to understand humanity. But these moments, for me, never really leave the world sketched out by "Cause and Effect," tiny messages inserted during the repetitions, pointing towards a final escape.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

And The Ugly

I'm including a list of five episodes never included in 'best-of' lists that nevertheless point to what was good about this show on a week-to-week basis while you waited for another great mind-blowing episode. So, none of these episodes are perfect. So what. All of them are plenty of fun, have memorable moments, or help move the characters forward.

If we're making room for the best and the worst, why not spend a little time with the merely average?

  • Identity Crisis: Another Brannon Braga script with DNA issues but tons of fun if you can get past that. LaForge discovers that all of the other members of an away team he was on several years before have disappeared save himself and a crewmate Susanna Leijten. Returning to the apparently uninhabited planet they beamed onto, both LaForge and Leijten begin to exhibit strange behaviors. Ultimately, Crusher figures out that all of the visitors to the planet pick up a strange parasite that rewrites their genetic code (SCIENCE!) and turns them into creatures with the ability to cloak themselves. It turns out that the entire planet is inhabited by these strange assimilating creatures. So the premise is pretty far-fetched but there are so many great creepy/disturbing images: LaForge using the Holodeck to figure out what is making an anomalous shadow, the bizarre transfigurations as the parasite takes hold, and the poignant moment where Data coaxes the mute, paranoid creature LaForge has become off of a cliff. Not great, but definitely WEIRD.

  • The Most Toys: Another near great episode. Data is captured by Kivas Fajo, an interstellar rarities collector, and made to join his museum of 'one-of-a-kind' objects. This episode could have gone off the rails in so many places, part of the enjoyment in watching it is seeing how a fairly sub-par idea is elevated by great acting (Spiner and Saul Rubinek) and flinty ambiguity. Kivas initially comes off as a buffoon, but the casual sadism he employs against Data and his employees secures him a place in the select group of true NEXT GEN villains. In the final moments, we're left with the unsettling possibility that Data, who instinctively recoils from violence, may have attempted justified murder.
  • We'll Always Have Paris: It's a little slow. The predictable 'old flame' cliche is revisited again in Next Gen. But I've always had a soft place in my heart for this episode. First of all, it introduces the idea of Picard as a an absolute hell-raiser in his misspent youth. Here he merely plays the cad, standing up a romantic interest, Jenice Manheim before heading off to his first assignment in Star Fleet. As crimes go, not the most severe, but I liked the knowing way this episode plays the dynamic between the characters. When she finally catches up with Picard, years later, she doesn't want to hear the collected wisdom of a man she never got the chance to really know, she only wants closure from the boy she once knew. The science fiction element, something about looped time, feels like a warm-up for later, greater explorations of temporal distortions later in the show, but the scene with Data working out which of his various doppelgängers is in correct alignment to solve the problem is pitch perfect.

  • Disaster: I have a great deal of affection for this episode. The premise is the biggest problem, the idea of a quantum filament one in a series of Mad Lib Season Five catastrophes, and one does have a distracting sense that this plot wasn't originally meant for Star Trek. No matter, this is a great vehicle for the characters. Disaster strikes the Enterprise, the power goes out, the engine is about to go kablooie, and Counselor Troi is the only senior officer left on the bridge. Cue screaming. This episode isn't exactly deep, but it does what it does with surprising effectiveness. Troi has to decide whether to separate the saucer from the drive hull to avoid an impending core breach. Picard has to escape an elevator with a posse of kids. Crusher and LaForge need to prevent a shipment of volatile chemicals from exploding by venting a cargo bay. Riker and Data attempt to reach engineering through a perilous Jeffrey's Tube (at one point, Data loses his head). Finally, Worf helps Keiko deliver her daughter. This final bit contains some of the absolute best Klingon moments in the entire series. 

  • Lessons: Not perfect but probably one of my favorite non-great episodes. Picard falls in love with someone who actually 'gets' him, Lt. Commander Nella Darren. He resolves some of the issues pertaining to his lost Kataan life and gets to play a duet on his Ressikan flute. The romance is doomed but not arbitrarily so. And the final scene, where Picard's love interest has to bravely secure the evacuation of a colony during some sort of plasma cataclysm is genuinely alarming, Nella sticks her head up to check the progress of the storm in time to watch a rolling inferno crash into flimsy force pylons. It's included on the oddball list for a few reasons. First of all, this is an episode bravely bucking the Next Gen reset button that nevertheless falls prey to the reset button. Lessons only makes sense within the context of "The Inner Light," and yet it can't quite escape the need to wrap up everything neatly at the end. A modern television show would have probably arrived at the same point, but allowing Picard and Darren's romance to continue for a few episode would have allowed the story a chance to breathe.

Also rans: The Gambit, Homesoil, The Survivors, The Drumhead, High Ground, Power Play.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Bad

This is a list of guilty pleasures. Any show will have its share of stinkers; maybe the guest star can't act, maybe the script is bad, or maybe someone thinks a story about stealing Spock's brain is a good idea. Whatever it is, this list serves to put together my selection of episodes so bad they're kind of fun. These are failures on many levels but still entertaining enough to go MST3K on them. 

You will notice that none of these episodes are entitled "Shades of Gray," because seriously, don't.

5) "The Loss" My first choice is a Deanna Troi vehicle. Essentially the Enterprise gets stuck in a swarm of two dimensional creatures. The massive feedback caused by the impact of the swarm on the ship causes injury to Troi's empathic region. Because the only reason early season Troi seems to exist is providing redundant insights into alien minds, this serves as a major career crisis. So much so, in fact, that Troi delivers an impassioned plea to Picard about her right to quit Starfleet. Ugh.

So this is the 'temporary blindness' episode. Except, usually in these stories, the hero gains some kind of compensatory increase in his/her remaining senses and that doesn't happen with Troi. Okay, she is able to finally deliver some tough love to a whiny ensign but other than that, this episode goes a long way to showing exactly what a one-note character early seasons made her. 

I was pleasantly surprised in my rematch how much better Troi becomes over time in the show. But that hasn't happened yet. At the moment we get Marina Sirtis snapping at everyone she sees, Riker, Crusher, the aforementioned Picard. It's tiresome but not nearly as tiresome as the mishandling of the Flatland aliens as this week's countdown towards doom device. 

The real problem here is this is a particularly glaring example of the reset button problem episodic television suffers from. Troi is informed shortly after her injury that the loss of her empathic powers is likely permanent, except, you know when there's one minute left on the episode and then everything's fine.

4) "Masks": The seventh season had it's share of great episodes (Parallels, Pegaus, Lower Decks, and, of course, All Good Things…) but it was also plagued by dismal failures. Masks is one of the more interesting duds, if only because Joe Menosky's script contains a genuinely interesting sci-fi concept. The Enterprise encounters a mysterious rogue comet harboring an alien archive at its core. After the database scans the Enterprise, artifacts from the culture that send the archive begin to appear all over the ship, ultimately transforming vast chunks of the ship into a vine-strewn Tikal. Oh, yeah, and the archive beams a series of alien personalities into Data's positronic net, giving Brent Spiner an opportunity to try on more silly accents. But all of that is buried under a surprisingly tone-deaf performance from Brent Spiner, a total collapse of disbelief suspension (significant parts of the Enterprise's Engineering deck is converted to alien stone temple and the power still works? huh?) and a lack of stakes. Seriously, what was this episode even about? Menosky was able to mine a similar concept of alien communication to far more success in "Darmok," but here we're left with a serious head-scratcher without much motivation to figure it out. Still, the final confrontation between a silver masked Picard and a gold masked Data spouting mythopoetic nonsense at each other shows how much campy fun this episode could've been.

3) Sigh. The first season. I was warned, you know. By friends and the internet, the first season has been all but written off. I think the only remarkable thing about this season is that it somehow permitted the show to get to a second season, an act apparently undertaken through faith alone. Rather than fill this entire list with first season failure, however, I'll let "Lonely Among Us," stand in for the rest of them. The Enterprise is on route to a peace conference after picking up representatives of two hostile races (The mustelid Antican and cobra-like Selay). Along the way the ship passes through a mysterious cloud, apparently picking up some kind of incorporeal being which passes from sensor array to crew members one after another until it finally takes up residence in Jean Luc. Picard, perhaps mind controlled by the phantom hitchhiker or perhaps deluded by the promise of incorporeal exploration (the true motivation isn't explained), decides to jump ship and beam into the cloud. This works out not at all and eventually Picard's mind has to be scooped out of the cloud and beamed back together (and how does that work exactly? SCIENCE!). 

The biggest problem here is the script. None of it makes any sense on any level, not in terms of storytelling, character development, or speculative fiction. What it does have, in one convenient place, is a run-down on all first season tropes. Ethereal god-like entities? Check. Warring species? Check. Poor grasp on characters? Check. Convenient deus ex machina to resolve everything at the end? Check. Interspecies cannibalism? Oh, wait, that's just this episode (thankfully). Bonus points, however, for introduction of Data's affinity for Sherlock Holmes.

2) "Devil's Due": This is a very dumb idea. Satan (oh wait, I meant space Satan) comes to a planet after a number of portentous natural disaster on the eve of the prophesied return of a malicious being known as Ardra.

You see, a very long time ago, planet Ventax signed on to a Faustian bargain, trading a millennium of peace for an eternity of servitude when this demonic entity Ardra returned. Also, the planet gave up on all advanced technology, because this apparently helps with making people happy. This being your typical Trek monoculture, everyone on planet Ventax immediately believes that a woman claiming to be Ardra is the real deal and are more than happy to turn over the entire planet. Picard and the rest of the crew are all that stands in the path of this obvious con artist. This is an example where the direction is adequate, Picard and Data put their game faces on and act the hell out of some spectacularly bad material, and it all doesn't matter because this episode is just so completely dumb! Actually, the dumbest part of the episode, that Picard would think a trial using Data as the impartial arbiter would be a good idea, is almost the most entertaining. As we learned from "Measure of a Man," Picard is a natural fit for courtroom dramas.

1) "Genesis": Speaking of dumb. In this episode, Dr. Crusher uses what appears to be a fairly routine technique of artificial DNA to treat long-suffering Reginald Barklay of some sort of space flu. Crusher apparently got the prescription wrong because very shortly everyone on the crew starts acting very strangely, Barkley becoming more and more agitated, Riker losing track of conversations and Worf getting seriously aggressive, ultimately spraying face-eating acid all over Crusher's face. 

Yes, this is the episode where Brannon Braga really needed to have a crash course in biology/genetics/common sense. When Picard and Data return to the ship after a plot convenient excursion, they discover that the crew has de-evolved into various species. Species that in many cases have no direct connection to human beings: Barklay becomes a spider, Data's cat becomes a lizard and still gives birth to kittens, etc. etc. etc. Really none of this matters because this is a list devoted to bad entertainment and what you need to know is that as bad as this episode is, and it's plenty bad, it's also a lot of fun. Gates McFadden's one foray into directing provided some surprisingly effective work here. Crusher's face melting off, Worf running around in shadows (so you never see the zipper) Picard's nervousness and paranoia as he begins to de-evolve into some kind of lemur, are all memorable, even if the rest of the episode is just ridiculous.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Good

Even the weaker seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation had their stand-out moments, enough that it's quite a challenge to whittle down the dozen or so obvious classic episodes to a best of list. I don't think my list represents anything radical, although I have omitted the two or three classic episodes that always appear on these sorts of lists. I'm not doing this because I dislike the episodes but rather because I'm hoping to use my 'best-ofs,' to highlight key themes in the next few essays.

So, keeping that disclaimer in mind, here are my favorite five episodes:

 #5) The Measure of a Man: This is my pick for a 'new-to-Trek' story. Lt. Data, an artificial life form serving as a Lt. Commander on the Starship Enterprise, receives an order to submit to disassembly by a Starfleet scientist named Maddox. While intrigued with the possibility of creating more androids like him, Data is not convinced the research will work, and might even render him inoperable. When he attempts to resign his commission, Maddox heads him off at the pass, filing suit with the newly created JAG department to argue Data is, in effect, property of Starfleet.

 By focusing tightly on the relationship between Picard, Data, and Riker, the drama centers on the moral question of what sort of society Star Trek is. Even someone who didn't know what a replicator or Vulcan were would get a sense of the philosophy animating the Star Trek universe. What I really appreciate about this episode, twenty years later, is how each character must make their own adjustment to the question Data's personhood. Riker has to finally get his hands dirty, given the odious task of proving androids have no rights. Even Picard, who goes to great lengths to protect Data's rights starts the episode with a rather hazy notion of what exactly is at stake in the courtroom. It's an encounter with Guinan that finally helps him realizes what mass produced Datas without right really represent: a race of slaves.

4) Yesterday's Enterprise: The other really great example of a tiny bottle world created within a single show. The Enterprise D encounters a spatial anomaly, a ship emerges...and everything changes. The ship turns out to be the Enterprise C, lost in battle 18 years before, apparently while defending a Klingon base from Romulan attack. As Data observes, this is a pity as the present war with the Klingons might have been avoided had the grand gesture taken place. 

This is an extremely skillful way of introducing an alternate timeline, where the Enterprise D wasn't built as a ship of peace and exploration but rather a warship in the midst of a vast and tragic war. This is a war Picard chillingly informs the captain of the Enterprise C has not going well for the Federation. The entire cast is terrific in this episode, Tasha Yar gets a more fitting end to her story (an ending they should have just left be instead of gumming it up with the Sela storyline) Goldberg sells Guinan's Cassandra plight over knowing that the time period is 'wrong' while not being able to describe why. As usual, Patrick Steward also shines, here slightly modulating this alternate history Picard into a sterner, less optimistic military leader. One enjoyable aspect of the show is how much milage they were able to get from a few simple changes to costume design and lighting. This isn't a show that would make a lot of sense to walking into Star Trek without any background, but grows in resonance the more of the series you watch. Unofficial sequels: Parallels and "All Good Things…"

3) Cause and Effect: The most successful Brannon Braga story, a nifty "Ground Hog's Day" concept that deftly allows each repetition of events to slowly build meaning with each rewatching. The Enterprise is caught in a repeating time loop, each loop ending in the destruction of the Enterprise. But what really sells this story is how the logic of each reiteration takes on different meanings with each pass through. Worf, Data, Riker and Crusher gather for four separate poker games, the deja vu striking each character differently, the scene played at first for comedy, then with eerie foreboding, and then dread. This is an ensemble episode, giving every crew member a chance to shine, something that the show isn't always able to pull off successfully. And, while technobabble does make its appearance, the problem and its solution are both executed in a refreshingly straightforward manner.

2) Ship in a Bottle: Finally revisiting a mostly successful second season episode ("It's Elementary, My Dear Data) that brought Dr. Moriarty into the 24th century, this episode gave us another truly great sixth season concept episode. Moriarty, who has been stewing in the digital storage of the Enterprise for four years is suddenly released by Reginald Barkley, a hapless systems engineer introduced in "Hollow Pursuits." When Moriarty explains to the Picard and Data that he has had awareness of the passing of time, the crew endeavors to help him, trying to figure out someway to allow him to escape the confines of the holodeck program and his own programming. But this is Moriarty, programmed to be Data's greatest adversary, and part of the fun of this episode is knowing that Picard and Data are walking into a trap without being able to see where the teeth meet. Without giving too much away, the episode does a masterful job of slowly layering complication upon complication until the final act has all of the ambiguous possibilities of a Christopher Nolan film. It also contains the best final line of any episodes, save this one:

Which takes us too...

1) The Inner Light: Any episode that can wrench so much feeling from a man playing a simple tune a tin flute, has secured its place in television history, let alone Star Trek history. 

But this is one of my favorite episodes for the tiny world it manages to create within its 45 minute run time. One of the true delights of this episode lies with how Picard comes to transcend and believably inhabit this alien world, and a life that represents, in some ways, the antithesis of everything he has devoted his life to achieving. His Kataan life includes a wife, children, a sedentary existence and an insoluble problem. And yet this episode, more than any other Picard-centric episode, reveals the endless depths of the character Patrick Steward was able to create. The gravitas of Steward always made the captain of the ship the emotional center of the stories, but this was the episode that brought all of the pieces together, cementing Jean Luc Picard as one of the truly original and fully realized fictional characters. 

And that doesn't really even begin to scratch the questions this episode casually raises during the course of its heartbreaking story, not just about the nature of reality, but the purpose of existence. For how could a life created for Picard, that he lived in full possibly be called false? How could his 'real' life aboard the Enterprise possibly be enough after all that he had seen and lost? I think this was the last episode of Star Trek that can be watched without wondering why the 'reset button' has to be pressed at the end of each adventure. It's telling that Picard would return again and again to that simple flute, using it as short-hand for a character who had gained a measure of self-knowledge at an appalling cost.

Each of these episodes helped secure Star Trek's place in the history of television and while most of them appear regularly in lists like these, I do feel obligated to mention the following runner's up in terms of best episodes: Best of Both Worlds (Part 1 & 2), Chain of Command (Part 2), All Good Things, I, Borg, Offspring, Family, Parallels, Lower Decks, and Q Who. These are all recognized classics and well-worth inclusion on any list.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Thirty-six views of a starship

Katsushika Hokusai, a ukiyo-e  painter in 19th century Japan created a series of intensely detailed and colorful prints collectively titled the "Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji." From either near or far, each print showed some view of that volcano from a variety of angles and distances. Mount Fuji,  serving as a symbol of immortality and divinity, had a profound spiritual significance in Japanese culture. By placing the mountain in the background of every image, the painter seemed to suggest that the mountain was too big, too complicated, to ever be captured from one single perspective.

After completing seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, wading through the good, bad, and ugly, following the Enterprise and her crew from one end of the universe to the other, I have a similar reaction. This was the first time I've ever watched the show from start to finish and I have to say, the experience really affected me. More than I thought it would.

This was my show when I was growing up, the first one that really seemed to belong to me, rather than to my parents. Parts of this show sunk deep within my subconscious, leaving permanent marks on my expectation of what science fiction should look like and how the people of the future should behave. This was hard for me to understand until I'd read enough science fiction on my own to appreciate just what a particular vision Star Trek represented.

As a utopian statement, the show gave us a ship and crew produced by a society we're informed is largely free of disease, poverty, and mental pathologies. This is a society of clear hierarchies, Picard the captain, Riker the "number one," everyone else's place as easy to discern as counting the number pips on a collar. And yet, Star Trek spends an inordinate amount of time following the crew members on their less structured pursuits. Data gradually learns painting and poetry, Riker practices jazz, and Dr. Crusher directs community plays. Even in a society as structured and ordered as a quasi military star ship, the overall story of the community couldn't be told without checking in with all of the other crew members. I'm not sure if everyone had this reaction growing up with this show, but honestly I assumed that this was what the future would be like. The purpose of life would be joining a community of talented individuals committed to the explorations of the possible.

Does that sound hopelessly naive? Perhaps, but maybe that's the real charm of this show. Sentiments that seem daft or impractical when written down felt inevitable, even when filtered through the waves of static on Fox Channel 31. Even when I accepted the implausibility of warp drives, teleporters and replicators, it's still hard to shake the authority of the show's perspective.

If you want good, perceptive reviews of each Next Gen episode, I'd suggest either Keith DiCandido's exhaustive Tor rewatch notes or  Jammer's somewhat more thematic reviews. I will spotlight a handful of episodes that particularly stuck with me for good, bad, or as examples of an major theme of the show or a reason why I think the show, even a quarter of a century later, remains relevant.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Drone Ecosystem

The video below was released by the Air Vehicles Directorate, a branch of the US Airforce, to promote the concept of swarms of small drones released into an urban environment to conduct surveillance and assassination missions. Other than the ornithopter manner of the drones hovering and darting through restricted airspace, there isn't much here that hasn't been seen in other drone models. What really makes this striking is to see all of these elements, the remote monitoring, the use of man-made power sources such as power lines, the visual navigation systems and lethal payloads, placed into something small and ubiquitous.

Present drone technology has essentially produced remotely piloted airplanes, small and relatively expendable, but not that many steps removed from a piloted airplane. But the notion of militarized swarms hiding in plain sight, living off of existing power systems to me seems a very radical notion, and one I haven't really seen fully explored in speculative fiction. What if the near future produces an urban ecosystem with the usual biological species rubbing shoulders with a myriad of cybernetic constructs. Like an ecosystem, this complicated web of relationships between the plastic and metal animals and the more traditional rats, pigeons and humans would include competition, cooperation, parasitism, and predation.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Another Curiosity Discovery

The headline is interesting on its own, but I was actually more curious about the breakdown of chemicals available in Martian soil. One of the things that makes the Moon less attractive as a site for a permanent colony is the lack of elements needed for organic life. Having enough nitrogen available in the soil to have once supported life suggests that agriculture on Mars might be sustainable without outside intervention (ie launching nitrogen rich asteroids at the surface of the planet.) Nitrogen is essential for plants and other biological processes. In addition, nitrogen currently represents less than 3% of Mars' scant atmosphere, a figure that would have to be raised during any attempt at terraforming.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Glitch in the System

Wreck-It Ralph was a second choice movie every single time I went to the theater last fall and ultimately I just ran out of time to see it first run. Which is a pity. This was a surprisingly good, heart-felt movie deserving a little more acclaim.

Quick Note: what follows is less of a review and more of an essay. SPOILERS AHEAD!

The movie's plot is simple enough. A long time video game villain, Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), tires of the constant put-downs and abuse from the residents of his virtual world and tries to break out of the endless drudgery of being the 'bad guy,' in a video game. Seeking to prove himself, Ralph visits a few other video games, including Hero's Duty (a bug-blasting sci fi first person shooter along the lines of Area 51) and Sugar Rush (a racing game that looks like a cross between Mario Kart and Candy Land). During his quest, he picks up an unlikely companion, a glitchy wanna-be racer, Vanellope Von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman) who steals a metal just so she can finally compete in the big qualifying sugar race. Ralph, a character whose out-sized hands and form wreaks havoc everywhere he goes has to decide whether becoming a different person himself means keeping another in her place.

The movie has a rather convoluted and involved history; first scripted in the 1980s, during the arcade boom, the film maintains a nostalgic, nearly anachronistic tone. Seriously, the movie takes place in an arcade -- ever since Good Times closed a few years back, I couldn't even tell you where to go in the Greater Boston area to find an arcade. But, the concept works because the details work. In a wise move, the story revolves around characters and games invented for the movie but real video game 'stars' (Zangrief, Q-Bert, Pac Man, and Egg Man) constantly drop-in. A lot of reviewers called this the "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" of video games and I think that comparison works on several levels. Where Roger Rabbit borrowed the style and plots of the Film Noire movies contemporary with the hey-day of cartoons, "Wreck-It" reminded me a lot of "The Neverending Story," "Labyrinth" and "The Last Starfighter," 80's fantasy adventures relying on 'fish-out-of-water' stories. In a similar fashion, by the end of Wreck-It Ralph, we have a sense of an incredibly intricate and deep world surrounding the events of this one story.

While meant for kids, "Wreck-It Ralph" manages one more nifty trick, allowing a measure of moral ambiguity into a Disney film. In particular, the reason Ralph 'wrecks' the apartment in Niceland is that his original home, a stump, was cleared out and tossed into a dump by developers. Surprisingly little is made of this in the movie, this notion that Ralph has a fairly obvious grievance. More notice is paid to the unfairness of his 'coworkers,' that Ralph isn't even recognized or appreciated by the other characters in his game, but less is made of the overall system. The one figure who tried radical change in the system, an older racer by the name of "Turbo," becomes an by-word for villainy in the same way "Marx" is used on Fox News.

Which makes, for me, an interesting and timely metaphor for society right now. The system on display here isn't just one game but a series of interconnected disparate entertainments, each with various rules and risks. These games can't be altered (changing the game too much results in game-destroying glitches, and eventual unplugging) but the conditions of the workers within the games can be made better with understanding and measured charity. In the real world, an individual is also confronted with a baffling array of governments, corporations, and social groups with their own structures, rules that have to be learned and obeyed. Groups seeking too much change are warned about the 'job-killing' effects of minium wage hikes, health care reform, and equal pay for equal work. I'm not sure, once it's all said and done, how I feel about the movie's ending.

Can games only be gradually reformed or can a glitch sometimes create a whole new system? The movie tries to have it both ways. By the end of the film, Ralph embraces a form of incrementalism, returning to that same job, an figure of chaos to be ritually defeated and then tossed from the top of a building again and again again. Vanellope was offered unlimited power as a monarch but prefers to retain her game-breaking glitch to win race after race. While both characters contributions are more appreciated -- he even works out a system to provide housing for video game characters thrown from other games -- ultimately the movie ends on a denouement. Wreck-It Ralph begins the story hurling towards a puddle of mud and he's picking himself out of it at the end.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Unlocking History through Fantasy

When examining the meaning of fantasy literature, such as "The Darkness That Came Before," by R. Scott Bakker, one has to first overcome a significant problem with the genre as a whole -- it's relationship to history.

Fantasy, as it's often written and enjoyed, is meant as escapism. Fantasy literature often plucks the most romantic and dramatic elements of the popular conception of European medievalism, adds a dash of magic and monsters, to erect the vague skene in front of which the traditional stories of disguised princes, princesses in peril, and wandering wise men appear. A reader goes to this world with idea of entering a fictional space separate from the 'real world.' The details of actual history serve to ground the story, help support the suspension of disbelief, not educate the reader about life in castles.

So how can such cavalier appropriation provide any actual insight into the past?

Fantasy does have a value to serious inquiry into historical periods. Firstly, when a writer such as R. Scott Bakker weaves elements of actual history (in The Prince of Nothing's case the First Crusade of 1096-1099) he or she is encouraging curiosity in that time period. Even a very casual reader will recognize the descriptions of the Holy War of the Three Seas as paralleling the Crusades, with the Thousand Temples' new and fiery Shriah Maithanet standing in for Pope Urban II, the Fanim states instead of the Seljuq Muslim Empire and a beleaguered and crafty emperor Xerius for the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos. These parallels are obvious but they're not exact. Bakker crafts the culture, language, and religion of the factions in his novels with elaborate care and ingenuity. The effect is one of suggestion. While the novel may certainly be appreciated on its own merits, a reader often finds himself distracted with a simple curiosity: what was this period really like?

So, on a very basic level, fantasy does lead readers with a very cursory knowledge of a certain historical period into greater knowledge, deeper insight. If the work of fantasy is well done, then it doesn't suffer much in the comparison, only benefits from association. If the fantasy is mediocre, then this hypothetical reader will still be enriched by the discovery of actual history.

But this is a very thin reason for reading fantasy, and poor apology for its short-comings. By this line of thought, fantasy becomes useful only in its relation to some other historical period, the choices an author makes enslaved to often deadening questions of accuracy and verisimilitude. What sorts of weapons did the Crusaders use? What kind of food did they eat and did the writer get it 'right' in volume X?

What I find compelling is something's significance or lasting importance. From that standpoint, historical fantasy often loses out if merely judged on its relationship with some actual historical period. However, I do think historical fantasy has a lot to say about the time period in which is produced. Bakker's Holy War fantasy might not have all that much to offer for scholarship of the High Middle Ages, but it has plenty of value for commenters on today's culture. What does it say about our time period that a description of a Crusade embraces so many separate view points, focusing on the each characters' complicated political machinations? What sort of critique does this story offer a modern world riven with ethnic and religious conflicts, where the struggles of great powers are simultaneously cloaked in secrecy and routinely revealed in Wikileaks?

To take an extreme example, the movie Avatar pounds the viewer over the head with parallels with the colonization of the American West and Imperialism in general. I don't think anyone would want to use the movie to learn about First Nations but it might still be interesting for some future historian as an example of the dominant contemporary culture coming to grips with the legacy of that conquest.

The use of science fiction and fantasy tropes to cloak painful truths in appealing allegory has a long tradition, one that might say more about the period the work comes from than the one it borrows from.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Review of R. Scott Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before

First, a word about how I came to pick up the first novel in R. Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing historical fantasy series. In short, after finishing "A Dance with Dragons," by George R.R. I googled what should I read next. This series came up.

I mention this because it might serve as a usual gauge for what to expect from "The Darkness That Came Before;" people liking Martin's mix of history, in-depth characterization, dark subject matter, and world-building will probably like Bakker's work. People not fond of entire chapters devoted to the Byzantine political maneuvers, a dozen pages of appendices on characters, maps, and language trees, or character names with umlauts should avoid this book.

Basically, the story of 'The Darkness That Comes Before," follows a warrior monk by the name of Anasürimbur Kellhus, who during a quest to find his father, becomes entwined with a Holy War against a nation of fanatical monotheists. The story is told from a variety of perspectives, including Kellhus, a Mandate sorcerer Drusas Achamian, a prostitute Esmenet, a concubine Sërwe, and a savage barbarian warrior named Cnaiür urs Skiötha, all painting a picture of a colossal war spanning countries and continents. Most of the novel follows closely the perceptions of one of these main characters but occasionally the narrative pulls back into a quasi-historical voice, describing the vast scope of hundreds of thousands of men on a march towards war.

The main conflict of the novel is whether or not Kellhus can successfully bend a massive crusade to his own intensely personal goals. That such as a task could even seem possible is a tribute to the descriptive talents of Bakker. Kellhus is a character very different from any I've read about in fantasy books, born into a monastic civilization, raised from an early age to use hyper-rationalism, appraisal of causes and effects and a deep philosophy of psychological motivations to bend the minds of others to his will. Kellhus is not, in short, a hero but rather a master manipulator in the speculative tradition of Tyrion Lannister, Kvothe, and Socrates. The pleasure in reading his parts of the story is in observing a brilliantly amoral mind move the other characters around like pieces on a huge chess board. These are also the sections of the novel that feel the freshest, almost as if Asimov's notion of psychohistory was reskinned in the politics of Emperor Justinian's reign.

But its this idea of a refigured Crusade that resonates. Although claiming Tolkien as an influence, Bakker's grasp of the slippery nature of history (whose history? And for what purpose?) far exceeds his teacher's. While never allowing his world to slip into easy parallels with Earth's history, the tale of soldiers of many kingdoms inspired to war by a messianic spiritual leader (not Kellhus, incidentally) works because of the echoes of distant crusades. The politics surrounding this Holy War feel complicated and authentic, the personalities engaged in the conflict at odds with each other as much as any foreign target. Within a world upended by entire nations armed, on the march, the expectations of narrative become unstable, unpredictable. Telling this story through various perspective is the correct story-telling choice.

The perspectives we follow in the story are skewed in a certain direction, however. Along with the icy rationalism of Kellhus, we have the mage Achamian and the barbarian Cnaiür, both men of action and motion. There are a grand total of three female characters with significant roles in a story with dozens of other characters. As introduced above, two of the characters are defined their relationships with men and the third is a depraved sociopath. Bakker paints in grim chiaroscuro but I wish there was more room in his vision for what the rest of his world is doing besides marching to war.

Ultimately, though this is a single complaint and not a deal-breaker. The world of "The Darkness That Comes Before," is original, compelling, and addictive. Readers looking for something with the dark grandeur of the Song of Ice and Fire could do far worse than pick up this volume.

Monday, March 4, 2013

An Act of Clemency

Obama has been the least lenient president in this country's history. Fact. Up until this weekend, Obama had only pardoned 22 people in his entire administration, compared to more than a hundred for his predecessor George W. Bush. The twelve individuals the president pardoned almost double the number of people who have received a new start.

The presidential pardon is one of the executive branch's most important and paradoxically underused powers. The president has nearly unlimited power to grant clemency to whomever he or she wishes and yet because that proposition tends to run afoul of some special interest, the pardon is increasingly rare in the modern presidency.

Which is what makes one particular recipient of the pardons this weekend so interesting. An Na Peng was pardoned after her 1996 conviction for an immigration violation. The case is somewhat complicated, An Na admitted to a visa violation before realizing that such an admission rendered her vulnerable to deportation. Well, she's now been pardoned, which means she can now go through the same process any immigrant does to become a citizen of this country. I, for one, wish her the best of luck.

This one case offers an interesting precedent for the future. At the moment, a bipartisan group of six is working on reforming the immigration system of this country. One of the issues hotly debated right now is whether or not to offer a path to citizenship for the millions upon millions of undocumented immigrants in this country. There is a sizable faction of the Republican Party (perhaps the majority) that wishes to deny this. Romney vision of 'self-deportation' has been soundly defeated, but the Republicans are understandably reluctant to permit the millions of people currently dwelling in the shadows of this system access to the vote. They sense, entirely correctly, that these millions will not be inclined to vote red after the decades of electioneering and demagoguing against them.

I would like, before I set out a radical proposal, to maintain that a bipartisan bill approved by both houses of the legislature after rigorous debate is the best way to go about immigration reform. It is the course least likely to result in social strife and abuses of the system, and the one most in keeping with this country's democratic values.


However, if for some reason the congress can't get together to enact legislation giving the millions upon millions of people a legitimate path towards legal citizenship in the country they have so obviously adopted as their own, there is another course.

The president could pardon them.

The power to grant clemency is nearly unlimited by the Constitution of the United States. An example of a similar mass pardon occurred in 1977 when Carter pardoned draft dodgers, one of his first acts when he gained office. Hundreds of thousands of Americans who had immigrated to America were allowed to rejoin American society, the crime of avoiding selective service forgiven.

Perhaps a blanket pardon isn't even necessary. Perhaps Obama can simply pardon those brought to this country when they were children. I'm not sure it even matters. The point is, perhaps a threat will suffice, a significant lever for bringing about the enfranchisement of millions of Americans. Americans well motivated to vote for progressive causes and an end to the gridlock currently pinioning Washington.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Past's Impression of Now

What would a time traveler from the mid-90s think of our 2013 present?

What would catch this hypothetical chrononaut's eyes? What would require explanation or provoke confusion, even alarm?

I asked this question of one of my friends recently, hoping to generate some interesting conversation to mine for a story I'm working on currently. He pointed to the device I was even then twirling around in my hands.

"What's that?" he said simply.

I think this is probably the best answer for my question. When I cast my mind backwards and think about how the world looks versus now, I'm not sure, on the surface, how much would seem strange or out-of-place. It's been a few years since I've seen Hummer's rolling around everywhere; hybrids and smartcars seem more fashionable. But it's not like you see the flying cars and hoverboards of everyone's  speculative daydreams. The world of buildings and streets, cars and buses, trees and parks, families and pets seems largely intact nearly two decades later. The billboards are brighter, and on occasion, animated, but the basic configuration of the world as its encountered by a person walking around, is undisrupted.

However, you do see all of these people sitting, standing, walking, and talking while simultaneously directing eyes downward to a panoply of small rectangles. Less frequently, you see people talking to themselves, holding on virtual conversations with unseen others through Bluetooth devices (but as with telephone calls in general, this sight has become less common). I have yet to see anyone wondering around with a field version of Google Glasses but just about everyone  has a way to silently communicate or browse the internet or play diverting game while ostensibly doing something else.

But really, I think the surface continuity obscures a profound change in the way human beings interact with out world in 2013. It's not just that we have, in America, Europe, and other developed countries, nearly constant, portable access to the internet. It's that the world that we see with our own biological eyes is only one portion of our actual experienced reality. I wouldn't hazard a guess as to how much of a typical person's day is taken up with the input from digital devices but I'd imagine it's significant.

We hear and see news from across the world seconds after it transpires. This news either encourages solidarity with others seeking freedom and self-determination or evokes fear of a chaotic world. We don't just watch movies and television but experience them. We anticipate new media events, tweet about their occurrence and then rate their relative merit, our observations rapidly agglomerated with the rest of the media consumption ecosystem. Our views of all of this are informed, perhaps directed, by the media we select to follow, shaped by the echo chambers we fall into.

While I do not myself see any cyborgs, flying cars, or killer robots in my day to day life, all of these things exist right now on my smartphone. I can search for them and I can see them. In the world of my job, friends, and pastimes, Mars is uninhabited, computers are frustratingly slow and obtuse, and the weather is significant portion of conversations. On my computer, wealthy venture capitalists are looking for married couples to take a round trip to the fourth planet, William Gibson reflects upon Google's world, and the Arctic is about to become a passable sea lane. If Boston doesn't look much different from the 90s, it's possible to search mega-pixel panoramas of Shanghai and Dubai for our cyberpunk skyline fixes.

Our world is now augmented. Reality is already multi-leveled, compartmentalized.

I'd suggest that this is where our hypothetical time traveller would have the greatest surprise. After picking up one of our mysterious black devices, figuring out how to turn it on, he or she would gain access to a world infinitely stranger and more conventionally futuristic than initial impressions might suggest.